The Gonski 2.0 Report: Cautious Optimism for Inclusive Education

By Catia Malaquias

The Australian Government has released “Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Education Excellence in Australian Schools” (Gonski Report) following the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools undertaken by a panel chaired by David Gonski.  The report was commissioned to help arrest “[t]he dramatic decline in Australian student results over the last decade and a half” [p5] that increased funding and a two-dimensional NAPLAN standardised testing regime failed to resolve. The key learnings of the review include that:

  • “within our current model of school education, some students are being left behind while others are not being adequately challenged” – [that’s what happens when the systemic setting of standardised goals results in conservative “teaching to the middle” without addressing subconscious bias and low expectations for students with disability and learning challenges];
  • a rapidly changing world means that “more jobs will require a higher level of skill, and more school leavers will need skills that are not easily replicated by machines, such as problem-solving, interactive and social skills, and critical and creative thinking” – [this has also been obvious for some time and the challenge has been how to encourage and preserve creativity, lateral thinking and strong communication and social skills]; and
  • “Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass [assembly line] education to all children. … It is not designed to differentiate learning or stretch all students to ensure they achieve maximum learning growth every year” [p. ix] (a similar point is made in the video animation “Changing Education Paradigms” featuring Sir Ken Robertson- click here).

Mainstream media coverage has focussed on the degree of out-datedness of the “industrial age” economic philosophy ascribed to our contemporary education system.   Regardless of how the issue with the current system is characterised, the core recommendation of the need to move from “teaching to the middle” of each annual batch of students and moving to adopt methods of instruction to support and extend the individual learning of each student is a practice central to inclusive education – the inclusion of students with disability in regular classrooms – students that the industrial age thought ineducable and in fact, until relatively recently, were excluded from the mass production line mainstream schools or, as many still are, warehoused in segregated “special” schools.

The idea that measures to better accommodate people at the margins – including people with disability – improves the accommodation of people “in the middle” is not new.  Universal design in architecture is now mainstream architectural thinking and embodies the paradigm shift from responding to the needs of the “majority” to responding everybody’s needs – buildings that facilitate access for the disabled, also better facilitate access for children, the pregnant and the elderly – and are generally more accessible and beneficial to the “middle”.

Universal design in education is also no longer revolutionary thinking. It is a critical concept in inclusive education that underpins the human right to inclusive education as defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Gonski Report has however preferred reference to the pedagogic concept of  “differentiated instruction”.

Again, consistent with inclusive education philosophy, the Gonski Report rejects “ability streaming” in preference for “mixed-ability” classrooms – the latter so critical to the realisation of inclusive education for students with disability.  The report [at p.28] recognises the lack of evidential-support for “ability-streaming” and its inherently inequitable outcomes.  Ability-streaming, to which a number of Australian States are so beholden, is simply teaching “to the middle” of sub-divided assembly lines – it runs counter to the inclusion of students with disability in regular classrooms and inevitably increases pressure on students with disability to be “exception-reported” and allocated to the separate and segregated “special education unit” line.

The Gonski Report also emphasises a number of other concepts common to inclusive education, including the importance of:

  • school leaders, particularly principals, setting a school culture conducive to learning and student engagement;
  • supporting students in their social development and peer connections, as well as in their academic development; and
  • teachers working with parents as partners in supporting student engagement and collaborating in the academic and social learning process.

Again, although the Gonski report does not delve into the detail of conducive school culture, strategies to support all students in their social development and the fostering of collaborative and engaged relationships with parents, it is clear that the recommendations of the report are not consistent with the industrial assembly line and exclusionary mentality of enforcing social obediance through policies of “compliance or suspension and exclusion”.  In order for students, particularly at both margins, to maximise their academic potential they must be given support to develop the skills to maximise their social access to educational opportunities and other students must equally be given guidance and modelling to bridge the provision of that access.

Exclusion in the playground, does not end in the playground …  nor in the classroom … it often never ends.  Supporting positive and interactive peer social connection is critical to maximising academic, employment and life-long outcomes for all students – not just students with disability.

It has never been as critical as it is today.  Students today are socially challenged from day one.  Their self-worth is challenged at school in the playground by their capacity to make friendships, on the sporting field by their athletic capacity, academically by “ability-streaming” and standardised testing and outside of school by the constant and relentless judgement of every aspect of their sense of self by their peers through electronic social media.  Healthy social connection is now a goal in education for the foreseeable future and its achievement is now intimately intertwined with the potential for each student to realise their academic potential.  It may not be “front and centre” in the Gonski report, but the long shadow of achieving social connection is cast as a precondition to our education system realising the fruit of many of the more academic-orientated recommendations of the Gonski report.

Like the Gonski report’s focus on the need for “differentiated instruction” to engage and realise the academic potential of every student, approaches that recognise and respond to student diversity are also required in our schools to engage and realise the social potential of every student.  Communication and behaviour support strategies that may work for one student, will not necessarily and often won’t work for another student – yet both have an equal right to an inclusive education. So we must similarly move away from “compliance” driven or punitive “behaviour-management” policies and find more considered ways to reach out and communicate with, engage and guide students at the social margins as well.

“Inclusive education”, as a right and as a concept, does not expressly feature in the Gonski report.  Similarly, and perhaps somewhat surprising for some, the word “inclusion” does not feature once in the Commonwealth’s Disability Standards for Education made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) although the the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by Australia, recognises the right to inclusive education and expressly  imposes on State Parties obligations to ensure an inclusive education system.  However, what is clear, is that the substance of many of the recommendations of the Gonski report appear to align with the practices of “inclusive education”, developed to foster the inclusion of students with disability in regular classrooms. The focus of the Gonski report was arresting our academic slide down the international tables – an equal and corroborative focus must also be applied to arrest the increase in social disconnection and isolation in our students for both their academic and mental well-being.

Further, there is need to be vigilant in respect of the detail and implementation that will be developed following the report and, in particular, there is a need to seek clarity in respect of some of its proposals that could have an adverse impact on students with disability.  In this regard, the suggestion for a “student identifier” to be adopted could be problematic given specific prior experiences and outcomes for students with disability have as much to do with environments of low expectations, lack of accessibility and appropriate supports and poor practices.  One other concept that requires more explanation is the notion of “a year’s growth”.  It is unclear whether this is simply a notion calling for each year of learning to be maximised for each student or does it import standardised concepts about what is appropriate growth for each student, which seems to be inherently problematic.

There is greater need for clarity about how the recommendations of the Gonski Report will work in practice and will be implemented but there is nevertheless cause to be cautiously optimistic about the report – few Government initiated-reviews have had the courage to recommend significant change to one of our society’s most change-resistant institutions.  The difficulty in the road ahead is to be appreciated with Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice from 1513 (The Prince):

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.

For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it.

[Cover photo © Jonas Jacobsen]

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